6 of the Oldest Universities in the World

6 of the Oldest Universities in the World

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Anumika Bahukhandi
Study Abroad Expert
Updated on Jul 27, 2023 00:53 IST
Top 10 Oldest Universities in the World

The evolution of human beings has sailed parallelly with the accumulation of more knowledge, leading them to lead an improved lifestyle as compared to the last-gone period or era. Initially, the majority of higher education institutes in Western Europe were born out of the revamping of Catholic Churches and monasteries and were called Cathedral schools. The medieval phase witnessed these schools transforming into universities after advanced education started flourishing in the region. Read about which are the Top Universities Abroad for admission.

Universities today are promoting higher studies as well as research, helping students gear up for a professional life efficiently and effectively. These modern institutes of learning replaced religious-centric education with contemporary subjects such as economics, arts, engineering, science, law, etc., letting students explore more dimensions of education.

You might have read about the world's most beautiful universities and the world's top-ranking universities. But have you ever wondered about the institutes that are still functioning and have existed for ages? The article lists the oldest universities in the world, known or lesser-known, that are still operational and attracting students from international locations.

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List of Top Oldest Universities in the World

Displayed below is a list of the world's top oldest universities which are still open for admission. You can view the location and year of establishment next to the university's name.

University Location Year of Establishment
University of Al-Qarawiyyin Morocco 859 AD
Al-Azhar University Egypt 970 AD
The University of Bologna Italy 1088
The University of Oxford UK 1096
The University of Paris France 1160-1250
University of Cambridge UK 1209

University of Al-Qarawiyyin

Formerly known as the University of Al Quaraouiyine, this ancient institution is located in Morocco and was originally a mosque. The University of Al-Qarawiyyin was set up by a woman named Fatima al-Fihri in 859 AD and is acknowledged as the oldest operating university in the world by UNESCO. It is one of the most renowned higher education institutes in the Muslim world and in 1963 got absorbed into the nation’s modern state university system after which it got its present name. The university was also the first across the globe to present degrees on the basis of distinct study levels and later on evolved into a top institution for natural sciences. Subjects such as physics, mathematics, foreign languages, etc., were included around 1957. The university which still functions accommodates a large number of students from Morocco, West Africa and South.

Education: Mostly, Islamic-centric education is imparted in this university through traditional Islamic techniques. One can study Islamic law, languages, Arabic grammar, legal sciences, etc. Special emphasis is given to Maliki law, in which importance is given to Sunna and Haddis.

Al-Azhar University

Known as the world’s second-oldest existing institute which still grants degrees, Egypt’s Al-Azhar University is located in Cairo and is an Islamic University which focuses on the Arabic language as well as on the Islamic laws. Initially, it was a madrasa, a religious Sunni Islamic school where education was provided from primary to tertiary level. As per QS Arab Region University Rankings, 2023, the university is placed at a position between 51-60. In the year 1961, it gained university status and along with imparting modern science lessons it also includes the teachings and traditions of Prophet Muhammad.

Education: Ever since its inception the university’s main objective was to propagate Islamic studies but later on modern secular subjects were introduced into its modules such as medicine, agriculture, engineering, business, etc.

The University of Bologna

The University of Bologna is recognized as the oldest university in the Western world and has five schools and 31 departments. Years back only doctorate courses were taught at the institute but at present different types of subjects are offered for studies. In the year 2021-2022, the university had a total of 93,753 students, with 7,630 from overseas. It has around 3,122 teachers and 3,105 professional staff members. In between the 12th and 13th centuries, some of the most famous subjects taught included canon and civil law. By the 17th century, the university started accepting female students. It has a number of campuses including - Representacion en la Republica Argentina, Cantro de Altos Estudios de la Universidad de Bologna; Casena Campus; Forli Campus; Ravenna Campus; Rimini Campus; Brussels, New York, Shanghai.

Alumni: Accursius (Roman law teacher & jurist), Laura Bassi (Physician & Professor), Achille Bocchi (Humanist, Professor & Politician), Giovanni Capellini (Paleontologist & Geologist), Gerolamo Cardano (Mathematician, Astrologer & Humanist).

The University of Oxford

The oldest in the English-speaking world, the University of Oxford has existed for around nine centuries. From the year 2017 to 2023 (present), it has obtained the first rank in the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings and possesses the highest volume of world-leading research as per the Research Excellence Framework, 2021. It has four academic units, where over 26,000 students (12,683 undergraduates and 13,324 graduates) are pursuing their studies. 46% of the student population consists of overseas students, belonging to over 160 nations.

Education: The primary subject taught at the university in the 13th century was theology. As the 17th century approached an ending scientific studies took over it and became more popular. In the QS World University Rankings, 2022, Oxford bagged the 1st position in the world for arts and humanities and for Computer Science. The world-famous ‘Oxford University Press’ is one of the departments in the university and published for all age groups.

Alumni: HM King Abdullah II of Jordan, Benazir Bhutto (former PM of Pakistan), Tony Blair (former British PM), Stephen Hawking (Physicist), T S Eliot (Poet), Aldous Huxley (Writer), Dr Manmohan Singh (Former Indian PM), Bill Clinton (former President of US), Hugh Grant (Actor).

The University of Paris

Another one of Europe’s oldest universities is the University of Paris which is also one of the largest in the nation. Although no official records state its authentic date of inception, it has been confirmed that teaching took place over there somewhere between 1160 to 1250. After the French Revolution, the university paused its operations between 1793 and 1896 but in 1970, the institute was remodelled and 13 autonomous colleges were formed out of it, including the famous Sorbonne University. Every year more than 60,000 local and overseas students get enrolled here.

Alumni: Marie Curie (Physicist), Louis Pasteur (French Chemist), Jackie Kennedy (United States’ former First Lady), Denis Diderot (French Philosopher), Roland Barthes (French Essayist), Benoit Mandelbrot (Mathematician).

University of Cambridge

Set up in the year 1209, the world’s fourth oldest university, the University of Cambridge has great historical significance and heritage. It has been enticing students and scholars from all across the globe towards its leading academic departments. Known for its exquisite grand gothic-style building architecture and world-class infrastructure, the university campus is simply a treat to the eye. Renowned for its original research efforts and results, the institute is a dream for many with outstanding students from various parts of the world trying their luck at its admission each year.

Alumni: According to the most recently available data at the university’s official website, over Oxford, 315,000 alumni are residing in Singapore, China, Italy, Canada, India, France, the USA, Germany, etc. It has a total of 47 State Heads, 121 Nobel Prize recipients, and 210 Olympic medal winners. Among its famous alumni are Isaac Newton (Physicist & Mathematician), Prince Charles (UK’s King), Robert Oppenheimer (Theoretical Physicist), Charles Darwin (Naturalist & Biologist), Srinivasa Ramanujan (Indian Mathematician), Muhammad Iqbal (Writer & Politician), Amartya Sen (Indian Economist).

Read More: Do you wish to study in one of the world's best institutions? Learn how to Get into Top Universities Abroad with Shiksha Topper Counselling Service here.

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About the Author
Written by
Anumika Bahukhandi
Study Abroad Expert

Holding an overall experience of 5 years, Anumika Bahukhandi has worked in the field of Journalism as a reporter/journalist, feature writer, and senior sub-editor with renowned media houses. She has been associated ... Read Full Bio

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